This past Saturday night I attended my first concert by the New Century Chamber Orchestra. This ensemble had been on my radar for awhile and when their opening concert with bassist Edgar Mayer showed up on Goldstar I decided to take the plunge and see what they were about. Two days later their publicist sent me an email asking if I would like to attend the show. Such timing! I accepted and asked the Femme Fatale if she would like to join me and there was an extra ticket available if it would help her smooth the path to her attending. She readily accepted and proceeded to work her intricate machinations which in the end failed but didn't prevent her from attending the performance.
The NCCO, led by music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, is a chamber orchestra and performs without the benefit of a conductor. This presents myriad challenges and my first thought after hearing them is that this is a very well-tuned, refined machine- a group of musicians who are able to pull off this challenge with apparent effortlessness. This isn't easy to do, and it's the one reason I never attend the annual Itzhak Perlman concerts at Davies with the SFS because I think he is terrible at trying to pull off this feat.
But I digress.
Saturday's season opener presented a varied program that evolved into a surprisingly coherent concert. The first piece was Rossini's Sonata in G Major, written by the composer at the ripe age of 12. Many of the "cognoscenti" of classical music and opera, both now and in Rossini's time, write Rossini off as a light-weight. Personally I think this is ridiculous. The composer of Turco, Barbiere, Italiana, Stabat Maater, Viaggio, Cenerentola and so many more certainly took the easy route many times, recycling this and that, but always recycling something of his own that was brilliant to start with. Nobody complains when Scorcese, Tarantino, Leonard Cohen or Phillip Glass does this, so why does the stigma attach itself to Rossini so easily?
In the hands of the NCCO, a pretty strong case was made for this work, with its flowing melody. Nothing profound, but a lovely to piece to stretch out for the opener. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg then introduced bassist Edgar Meyer with unconcealed delight. Meyer strode onstage looking a bit like a college professor in his baggy slacks, ill-fitting blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a yellow bow tie. He nodded to Anthony Manzo, the NCCO's bass player, and began to play Bach. I don't know enough Bach to know if this suite was written for the bass, but to me it sounded like one of the cello suites and if it wasn't there were certainly many parts of it that overlapped with those familiar works. Meyer leans into his instrument, leaning on it actually, and its interesting to watch how he physically melds his body to the instrument, as if he wants to feel everything its producing under his hands. The Femme Fatale described it as dancing in place with it I believe, and I think it's an apt description.
Meyer and the orchestra then performed Bottesini's Concerto for String Bass No. 2 in B minor. Like Meyer, Bottesini was regarded as one of the most talented bass players of his day. I found Meyer's playing to be completely absorbing and while the orchestra followed him well, but they never felt completely in sync, establishing the interplay which makes the concerto format work. Meyer played, they followed. Part of the problem may be the piece itself, which has plenty of highpoints for the soloist (I believe the cadenzas were Meyer's own) but apart from that, it isn't that memorable.
As an encore, Meyer returned to the stage without his bow and gave a free-form, funk-based jazz improvisation which demonstrated his formidable skills. It was a puzzling choice to me, because while it showed off a different side of his musicianship, considering the three pieces together blurred my vision of who Meyer is as an artist rather than clarified it.
After the intermission the orchestra performed Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony in C minor (Op. 110a, arranged by Rudolf Barshai). This was thrilling. Based on the Eighth String Quartet, the piece is somber and moody until it bursts into wild, mad frenzy that had Salerno-Sonnenberg coming off of her seat to play fierce punctuations during the churning second movement which has scorching elements from the Eighth Symphony incorporated into it.
The final piece was Mahler's Adagietto from Symphony No. 5. This was beautifully played, with the orchestra completely in sync, and the interplay among them fascinating to watch, but even better to hear. The movement's romantic lyricism had with a great tenderness that actually benefited from being played by a smaller orchestra
The New Century Chamber Orchestra will have three more programs this season. The next one features works by composer Mark O'Connor and Bach:
Open rehearsal: Monday, November 15 at 10am, Herbst Theatre
Thursday, November 18 at 8pm, First Congregational Church
Friday, November 19 at 8pm, First United Methodist Church
Saturday, November 20 at 8pm, Herbst Theatre
Sunday, November 21 at 5pm, Osher Marin Jewish Community Center